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Wisconsin can't ignore climate change

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For those of us who love winter snow sports such as skiing and snowmobiling, the forecast early this week was dismal: chance of freezing rain and then rain, a reprise of the rain that wrecked a promising snow cover before Christmas. Bah!

Our snow sports are in peril if this kind of winter weather persists.

And such persistence is likely, according to data gathered by Climate Central, the independent nonprofit organization that examined cold season precipitation at stations across the country, specifically how much snow falls compared to rain.

The report said: “Even in a warming world, snow will fall. However, the amount of snow and when it falls will likely change as greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere. ... The Northwest and the Upper Midwest are the climate regions seeing the largest decreases in precipitation falling as snow over the past 66 years.” Some 72 percent of the stations in the region including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa were reporting less snow and more rain.

Those findings have consequences beyond winter tourism; snowfall also has an impact on agriculture. “Snow on the ground is also a good insulator, helping keep soils moist during the winter, rather than exposing them to the bitter Arctic winds that can dry them out,” the Climate Central report noted.

Given the connection between greenhouse gas-caused climate change and two of Wisconsin’s key economic assets – tourism and agriculture – how odd it seemed to read during this “rain in January” scenario that Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources was “scrubbing” references to climate change from its website.

For example, when I searched on the DNR site for Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impact, the collaboration on climate science among the private sector, public agencies, nonprofits and universities, the top listing was not the WICCI website, but a teaching document called Impacts of Climate Change in Wisconsin. When I clicked on it, the response was “page not found.” WICCI was formed in the fall of 2007 by the Wisconsin DNR and the University of Wisconsin Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

But there was this from the next link – a story from the DNR magazine in 2011: “Over the next few decades, climate change could turn Wisconsin into a very different-looking place. Winters will be shorter, warmer and rainier. Our northern forests could undergo a visible transformation, hosting an unfamiliar mix of trees. Trout streams could seriously decline, and aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems across the state could be disrupted in ways that favor invasive species over native plants and animals.”

Jack Sullivan, who at the time was head of DNR’S Bureau of Science Services, was quoted: “We need to think about what climate change means for our natural resources and get out ahead of this problem, and we’re working hard to do that.” He was coordinating “efforts to evaluate how changing climate will alter the agency’s management responsibilities and what strategies could minimize those changes.”

Sullivan retired in 2015 in the face of budget cuts that decimated science positions in the DNR. He is now listed as a “citizen member” of the WICCI science advisory board.

So the DNR no longer has Jack Sullivan and other scientists who can help guide resource policy based on the climate changes underway. And its website doesn’t promote information for the people of the state about climate change, or even a prominent link to the WICCI website, which is full of information about the impacts of climate change in Wisconsin, including adaptation strategies. From WICCI: “A few possible examples of adaptive measures could include redesigning storm water management systems to handle increasing volumes of storm water; planting species of trees more suited for longer, warmer growing seasons; planting vegetation to provide more shade for cold water trout streams; and developing heat emergency action plans to assist vulnerable urban populations during heat waves.”

WICCI climate scientists say that our winters will see the most warming of any season by mid-century. Northwestern Wisconsin, where the American Birkebeiner and Kortelopet ski race occurs, is expected to warm the most — by as much as 8 degrees. “Race officials could need to reschedule the late-February race. They have already moved the finish line to avoid having more than 8,000 participants ski across Hayward Lake due to worries that the ice might not be safe,” according to a WICCI story.

Wisconsin can’t afford to ignore climate change. Wisconsin citizens deserve more science and less politics from its Department of Natural Resources. Its website decision reflects adherence to a political bias rather than well-established science that is needed by the state to deal with the impacts of climate change.


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